Lawsuit: Rastafarian inmate shaved at La. prison challenges ruling
The former inmate claims his religious freedoms were violated when his knee-length locks were cut and is appealing for monetary damages
By Jacqueline Derobertis
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate
NEW ORLEANS — A former Rastafarian inmate is challenging a court ruling that he isn't entitled to monetary compensation after his head was forcibly shaved at a Louisiana prison in violation of his religious freedoms.
The appeal focuses on whether money damages are available in lawsuits against state officials under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which protects the religious rights of incarcerated people.
U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick of Baton Rouge dismissed Landor's case in September, saying his claims became moot upon his release from prison in 2021. She also wrote that the law in question "does not authorize a private cause of action for compensatory or punitive damages."
In his brief filed in the 5th U.S. Circuit of Appeals, Landor argues the statute is clear.
"Damages are the only remedy that can even begin to remediate that violation—and they are plainly 'appropriate' relief," the brief says. "It is damages or nothing."
New Orleans firm Casey Denson Law and New York firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges represent former inmate Damon Landor. The lawsuit names the state Department of Corrections, DOC Secretary James Le Blanc, Raymond Laborde Correctional Center, the prison's warden, Marcus Myers, and others.
Ken Pastorick, DOC spokesperson, said the department was unable to comment as the matter is still in litigation. However, he did note that department rules allow inmates to ask in writing for religious exemptions to DOC regulations or policies.
An inmate who wants to request a religious exemption should submit the request to the head chaplain of the institution within 30 days of receiving the form, according to instructions on the paperwork.
Denson said in a written statement that it has been "clearly established law for years that the state's prisons must not blindly use their grooming policy to justify cutting the hair of Rastafarian inmates."
"Louisiana citizens pride themselves on their right to their free exercise of religion. Despite this, many do not know that the State of Louisiana has shown a tremendous disregard for the religious beliefs of its inmates," she said. "Damon Landor, and other Rastafarians, have had their hair cut as part of an unconstitutional practice that is a cruel effort to deprive them of their dignity and most deeply held beliefs."
Landor, who served time at Raymond Laborde Correctional Center for possession of narcotics before his release in January 2021, is a practicing Rastafarian and abides by the Nazarite Vow, which prohibits, among other things, cutting your hair.
The biblical vow was taken by Samson in the Old Testament. In accordance with his belief, Landor had not cut his hair for nearly two decades, the complaint says.
Prior to arriving at Raymond Laborde, Landor had been incarcerated at St. Tammany Parish Detention Center and later at LaSalle Correctional Center in Olla. Although placed on lockdown at one point for refusing to cut his hair at LaSalle, Landor had not been forced to do so by officials at either institution, his complaint says.
Administrators at both facilities allowed Landor "to wear a 'rastacap' (also called a rasta 'crown') to contain his locks," according to the lawsuit.
But when he arrived at RLCC in late December 2020, he alleges his request for religious accommodation was ignored.
Landor told the guard conducting intake at the facility that he was a practicing Rastafarian and provided him with various federal and state forms covering religious accommodations, his lawsuit says. He also showed the guard a copy of an opinion in a 2017 matter where the 5th Circuit found that the department's grooming policy violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
Instead, the guard threw away the materials and summoned Myers, the warden, the lawsuit says.
Myers asked Landor about his religious beliefs and if he had any documentation about his faith from the sentencing judge, according to the complaint. Landor claims he told Myers he didn't but could reach out to his lawyer to get the documents.
"Too late for that," Myers said, according to the complaint, then instructed corrections officers to escort Landor to another room.
There Landor "was forcibly placed in a chair, handcuffed to that chair, and held down by two corrections officers while another individual who appeared to be a fellow inmate proceeded to shear Plaintiff's hair, cutting his locks off completely and shaving him totally bald," the complaint says.
Landor's hair had extended almost to his knees when he arrived, according to the lawsuit.
After he was shaved, Landor was placed in lockdown for the remainder of his time at the facility, he alleges in the complaint. Although he requested a grievance form daily from prison staff, the lawsuit says, he was never given one.
He was released several weeks after he arrived on Jan. 20, 2021.
In comments this week, Landor said what happened to him was "completely senseless."
"I was scheduled to be released in a matter of weeks," he said. "Yet the prison officials at Laborde insisted on scarring and humiliating me on the way out. I brought this case to hold them accountable and to help ensure this doesn't happen to anyone else — not in Louisiana or anywhere."
Landor's appeal focuses on the question of whether he should be granted monetary relief for violation of his religious practice, and if prison officials actually violated his religious freedom rights during the haircutting incident.
Attorneys for Landor pointed out he has received support from many religious organizations and and leading scholars, who filed briefs in his support.
"Dozens of religious organizations, representing an incredible range of views and interests, have united in defending Mr. Landor's right to practice his faith with dignity and respect," said attorney Zack Tripp of Weil Gotshal. "What Mr. Landor was forced to endure was senseless and tragic. But the support he's now receiving cuts across faiths, ideas, and ethnicities, and it's truly inspiring."
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story used an incorrect spelling of DOC spokesperson Ken Pastorick's name.
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